Since the days when exotic dancers at Chicago's Columbian Exposition shocked fairgoers, the issue of nudity at a world's fair dominated the press coverage and many individuals' attitudes towards the expositions. The New York version was no exception.
Just the Bare Facts
In a summary column midway through "The World of Tomorrow's" first season, Dave Boone proclaimed: "New York deserves credit for trying to make it the first World's Fair in history that didn't depend largely on obscenity, nudity and a wiggle." Many of his readers must have chuckled at this observation. The issue of nudity on Flushing Meadows engulfed the fair from its opening day.
The opening day weather, and the still unfinished Amusement Zone, brought this editorial comment. "Fair and warmer will uncover tundras of nudity in the girlie-shows which were kept under wrap in yesterday's goose-pimpling temperature."
And humorist H. I. Phillips remarked: "So many exponents of naked dancing have been booked that it will practically amount to a world convention of strip teasers. Your correspondent now knows what those two world's fair symbols, the tall one and the short one, are. They are a closed fan and a pearl bead."
Observers noted: "There's nothing like doves to draw the crowds, especially when the birds are accompanied by a shapely dancer clad only in a g-string." However, the shows featuring nudity were slow to open on the fair's first day.
At The Crystal Palace, the fair police arrived to keep order among the four hundred "students of nudity" gathered around the concession's box office. When the ticket sellers finally opened the window at 10:00 P.M., anxious patrons knocked over the concession's turnstiles and rushed past the ushers for a first glance of the Amusement Zone's main attraction, Rosita Royce.
Although the first "dress" rehearsal had only concluded ten minutes earlier, the standees demanded a show. "They don't need any practice!" "What's the idea of holding out on us?"
Crowding around the 30-foot runway, the patrons became increasingly agitated. However, the audience was terribly disappointed. Due to the inclement weather, Miss Royce appeared in an evening gown!
A chorus of boos and catcalls ensued and Miss Royce hurriedly broke into her "Dove of Peace Dance." Having previously performed with seven doves, only six now covered Miss Royce during her fair premier. A lady in the audience, later discovered to be a part of the performance, mounted the stage, and before fainting, declared: "Stop this show. It's indecent and degrading. I'm going to tell Grover Whalen about this."
Following Miss Royce's example, a few other thick-skinned performers braved the cold to entertain the Palace's patrons. Jack Sinnett observed in his column: "The main attractions at the fair are just modern variation on an old, old theme. Egyptians called it sex."
Columnists had a field day over the fair's Amusement Zone. Humorist Bugs Baer claimed: "The figures show that the arts and sciences are attracting more tourists than Sally Rand (at the San Francisco fair). However, when the figures show, we will look at Sally's." And male fairgoers on the east coast agreed.
Life magazine observed: "You may have myriads of marvels and acres of art, but it isn't Old Masters that make a fair a success, its Young Misses." A Brooklyn Eagle writer assured readers: "Your Aunt Abigale will be pleased to know that the people who patronize the near-nude shows do not go there just to gape at undressed flesh. They want motion and grace."
But, on May 8, the first organized protest against the fair's nudity was launched.
Rev. Francis P. La Buffe, secretary of the Catholic Sodality groups, charged the fair was in danger of becoming a "Temple of Filth." Rev. Dr. Edward Lodge Curan, president of the International Truth Society concurred: "If this World of Today condones indecent statuary, indecent amusements, indecent exhibitions, then the World of Tomorrow will be confirmed in indecency." The gauntlet was down.
The "Nudist of the Nude" contest on May 31 proved to be the breaking point. Maurice FitzGerald, Queens County sheriff, raided the competition at the Cuban Village and arrested its participants and organizers for violating the indecent exposure clause, Section 1140 of the Penal Code. At the following day's hearing, FitzGerald explained: "This type of show will not be allowed to continue as long as I am sheriff. I am not a Puritan, but I could not stomach last night's performance."
And once again the news media had a field day.
The Queens Evening News' editors noted: "The arrests were the answer to the prayers and persistent efforts of press agents." The midway barkers encouraged passersby to come and "see for yourself if our show is everything they say it is."
The Brooklyn Eagle: "Nakedness, which, when exhibited in private enterprise, is considered evidence that a low mind is at work in the neighborhood, is, at a world's fair, looked upon as pretty much of a necessary part of the fair's wares."
Columnist Louis Sobol: "I saw a version of the dance of the seven veils again — over at Mr. Whalen's neon-lighted midway at the World's Fair. My Grandpa would have liked it – but a roue reporter with passes to many of the burlesque houses, stifled a yawn."
But the Long Island Press expressed almost dissimilar views over two editorial days. "There is, of course, a moral and legal discrimination between a nude person and a lewd person; they are not always the same thing. There can be artistry and beauty in nudity. The authorities must be discriminatory at the Fair and weed out vulgarity." "(The sheriff's raid) shows up the Fair's so-called amusement area for what it really is: a lawless czardom where unscrupulous entrepreneurs may hawk and peddle their smut and obscenity without let or hindrance."
Harvy Bowby, general secretary of The Lord's Day Alliance prayed: "May the unsophisticated and the passion-mad elements be protected from themselves and may visitors from foreign lands carry back to other lands the good news that the United States exalts morality and religion and righteousness."
The concessionaires now felt the persistent heat.
Philip Gelb, the Crystal Palace's operator, was ordered to remove half a dozen paintings on the grounds they "impaired the morals of youth." Gelb responded: "My girls are just as artistic as those marble and paint in the exhibit area. I suggest that the fair start by putting pants and brassieres on them." Taking up Gelb's argument, the Queens Evening News' editors wondered: "When is a nude not a nude?"
Mayor La Guardia entered the fray, stating he would not "tolerate cheap publicity stunts at the Fair." As the sitting magistrate following the sheriff's raid, the mayor lectured the defendants, imposed fines and a jail sentence, and then suspended all penalties.
But the controversy only heated up.
Fred C. Sasse, the Queens borough secretary, visited one of the nude shows and expressed his dismay that over half of the audience were sixteen-yea-old boys who paid the fifteen cent admission price. In fact, one fourteen-year-old stayed for the second show.
Sasse wrote a complaint to Grover Whalen that with school not in session, many teenage boys, like his son, would be spending a great deal of time at the fair. He urged the fair take steps to prohibit the youngsters easy access to the Amusement Zone shows. Sasse said the letter must have gotten lost in the mail when he received no reply from the fair's president.
By the end of the week, Sasse turned another letter over to the Flushing police concerning sixteen-year-old Frederick, Jr. "If you don't mind your own business about nudity at the World Fair, we will kidnap your son." A guard was stationed at their home until the family left for an undisclosed destination for an undisclosed amount of time.
As the Sasse incident came to a head, the concessionaires met and issued a statement: "There is nothing vulgar on the Midway. The police are going beyond the law." However, the Long Island Daily Press countered: "The campaign against nudity at the Fair has been conducted for the most part by level-headed men and women who can't be classed as professional reformers."
The fair never actually resolved the nudity issue to everyone's satisfaction. Most of the shows remained open through the full 1939 season, but, not all eventually showed a profit. The invasion of Poland on September 1 became everyone's chief concern and, for most critics, the issue simply died a natural death.